I’ve always been afraid to admit this, even to myself, because I feel like it reveals some sort of horrible truth about me. I hate the book The Giving Tree. I know the “right” reaction to this children’s classic picture book is to be deeply touched and inspired by the unconditionally loving and generous actions of the tree. But I always end the book feeling kind of sick to my stomach and pretty much just really sad. This huge, beautiful, thriving tree gets slowly hacked to pieces by the boy-turning-into-man whom she loves. At the end of the book the tree is nothing but a nearly dead stump because he kept asking and she just kept giving. I mean, tell me that doesn’t sound kind of like the plot to some demented horror story or psychological thriller! Except for children?
But honestly, it is sort of an apt description for motherhood. At least in the early years of being a mom and especially in this era where parenting has become both an art and a science. I mean, what mother doesn’t want to give all of the best parts of herself to her children? It’s practically instinctual. I know many moms feel deeply satisfied by the calling of motherhood, but there’s also pain inherent in sacrifice. Especially for those of us who have a hard time letting go of an impossibly unrealistic vision for our life in which we think we’ll be able to give the best parts of ourselves to our families (and our jobs and our communities and our churches and our husbands) and yet somehow not be left as a virtually unrecognizable, hacked-up, stumpy remnant of our former selves. And yes, hopefully most of us have slightly better boundaries than the Giving Tree. But even though I try, there’s still something deep down inside of me that feels wrong every time I choose to put my own oxygen mask on first.
People tell me that there will be life beyond these years. I only sort of believe them. Mostly, I just feel like by time I’m done raising my children, I’ll be much, much more tired and my skills and experiences will be much, much less relevant.
We live in a time in which “irrelevant” becomes reality at an alarming rate. I noticed awhile back that a certain trendy retailer was selling the jeans I would have worn in high school as “vintage denim” for $175. To be honest, though I like to think I’m not someone who cares much about such things, it took my breath away realizing how quickly my prime time had come. and passed. and was already being recycled as vintage! I’m still years from my 20th high school reunion and had assumed, judging from previous generations’ rather predictably regular fashion cycles, that I had 30 years before that fashion would come back again. But it seems as if we’ve reached an age when most things in life cycle through at an almost panic-inducing pace.
It’s not just trends that become outdated quickly, it’s everything: Technology, information, best practices, best friends. Almost everything is available at our fingertips in a flash and, with a push of a button, being sent to our homes for our instant gratification. News becomes irrelevant in the time it would have previously taken us to read the paper, let alone investigate, write and print a new one. No sooner have I figured out the best way to parent (bye-bye Tiger Mom and Helicopter Mom, hello Free Range mom?), eat healthfully (my flax seed supply from Costco expired before I moved on to chia seeds. What’s in today’s smoothie?) or even tie my shoes before it’s the wrong way again. Our constant, easy access to information and social media compels us to sit spellbound in front of a screen all day as relationship statuses and the states of nations and the latest superfoods scroll past us, literally changing by the minute!
The downfall of our generation is that we’re spending so much time and energy trying to figure out how to keep up with the best that life has to offer that we’re missing out on most of it. Stepping away from that constantly streaming source of information to be present in whatever moment we’re actually living leaves us with itchy thumbs and restless sensory input systems, anxious that we’re not online to ingest whatever we think it is that might make us most relevant in the conference room or cocktail party. We’re so scared of missing out on the latest things, that we’re missing out on the greatest things.
So back to that Giving Tree. I don’t think that this children’s book is about unconditional love. Something else is at play there—a desperate scrambling to give and to get whatever each could in order to have value in a world that is passing away. They were both operating in a finite system. This story is tragic because there is no sense of eternity. Neither character is giving a second thought to investing in things that might actually last beyond the passing of a few short years here on earth.
I’m trying to remind myself that what the world tells me makes my life significant is almost always a lie. Spending all of our time trying to remain relevant can be easily-justified but far too often becomes an all-consuming distraction from that which gives our lives and our existence the greatest meaning: relating to an eternal God whose love for us and plan for us transcends all that is passing away. Our kids don’t need all the best this world or even their parents have to offer; they need to know that even when they don’t have everything they can still have eternity. Our significance to this world has nothing to do with things on which this culture places tremendous value such as our weight, age, our job, twitter follower count or the correct adaptation of whichever “best practice” or philosophy is en vogue. In fact, it has everything to do with convincing them the exact opposite is true:
“People are like grass;
their beauty is like a flower in the field.
The grass withers and the flower fades.
But the word of the Lord remains forever.
And that word is the Good News that was preached to you.
1 Peter 1:24-25
Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.